In this NASA handout image, Hurricane Harvey is photographed aboard the International Space Station as it intensified on its way toward the Texas coast on August 25, 2017. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Marketing & Communications
Note for media: Aug. 25 will mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the costliest storm ever to hit Texas, totaling $125 billion in damages and causing catastrophic flooding in the Houston area. Texas A&M University storm experts John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences and State Climatologist, and Sam Brody, who directs the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M-Galveston, offer some insight on Harvey and its aftermath.
Q: What is the overall lesson to be learned about Hurricane Harvey?
Sam Brody: It seems like people were prepared and there was still widespread devastation. The response to the storm was stellar, but preparation and mitigation were patchy and uneven. Harvey exposed underlying weaknesses in the management of flood risk across such a large region.
John Nielsen-Gammon: All extreme weather is local, and each event is different. Experience is usually our most reliable guide, but experience doesn’t work well when an event comes along that nobody has ever experienced. There’s also the danger that, since in some ways Harvey was rarer than a 1-in-1,000-year event, people will assume that everything they experienced during Harvey was extremely unusual. In reality, some places got the worst of Harvey, while others didn’t. It’s the same thing with hurricanes in general: most people who experience and survive a Category 4 hurricane like Harvey didn’t actually experience the part of the hurricane corresponding to Category 4 wind and storm surge. When the next Cat 4 comes along, it will follow a different track, have different storm surge, have different wind patterns, and just in general be different from the previous Cat 4 storm in ways we won’t know about until a couple of days before landfall.
Q: Is Texas sitting in the bullseye of hurricanes or have we been lucky that more major storms have not hit the state?
Brody: 10 years ago (2008), Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties were significantly impacted by Hurricane Ike, which included both surge and rainfall inundation. Houston and surrounding areas had major rainfall-based flooding in 2015 and 2016. So, we have not been so lucky and the problems will most likely continue in the future. No one can predict when the next major storm will hit, but to me, the better question is, would the same amount of rainfall 10 years ago have caused exponentially greater amounts of impact today?
Nielsen-Gammon: The number of major hurricanes striking or affecting Texas averages about four major hurricanes every 30 years. The past 30 years had three major hurricanes (Rita, Bret, and Harvey) and one that had the impacts of a major hurricane (Ike), so Texas hasn’t been especially lucky or unlucky in that regard. As for hurricanes of any intensity, we typically average three hurricanes every eight years, and we’ve only had one (Harvey), so Texas had been relatively unscathed by hurricanes recently. Since the Atlantic Basin overall has had normal activity, Texas has indeed been lucky with hurricane numbers. But as we saw with Harvey, it’s not the number of storms that matters so much as what each storm does. Harvey was by far the most devastating hurricane to strike Texas in the modern era.
As for this season, the tropical Atlantic is running cooler than normal, and El Niño conditions appear likely to develop in the tropical Pacific over the next few months. Both of these factors will help suppress tropical cyclone activity over the Atlantic. In some ways, the ocean temperatures are less favorable for hurricanes than they have been since the early 1990s. If indeed we get a break from hurricanes, we will take it and get ready for next year.